The 15 Best Affordable Rolex Alternative Watches

Apr 28, 2021

Category: Style

In the watch world, there is no name on a dial that carries nearly as much cachet as Rolex. Omega may have gone to the moon, Patek Philippe may have more prestige, and Richard Mille may be the new favorite of rappers and pro athletes, but none of these brands are Rolex. The Crown accounted for a quarter of all Swiss watch sales in 2020, a year that saw them reduce their production by choice. Everybody wants a Rolex, but due to their high price and, for some models, their scarcity, not everybody can get one. But there are Rolex alternatives you can actually afford out there, and this guide will show you exactly what they are.

Now, when we say something is an affordable Rolex alternative, that does not mean we’re offering you watches that are in any way equal to a Rolex. Watches are like any other industry in that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. The watches we’re recommending in this guide are alternatives to Rolex because of their similar styling and functionality, not because they possess the same level of quality. It’s like with cars. You can suggest a C8 Corvette as an affordable alternative to a Ferrari F8 Tributo, and you’d be right to do so! The mid-engined Corvette is a great car that offers some of the thrill, looks, and speed of a Ferrari — but it ain’t a Ferrari. Look at this guide through the same lens and you’ll be all set. So now, let’s get to some Rolex alternatives you can actually afford.

Photo: Rolex Day-Date

What’s So Special About Rolex?

They Wear A Crown For A Reason

There are some who’ll say that Rolex is overrated, and there may be some truth to that. A small handful of companies arguably put out better products at lower prices, and the perception of Rolex as the be-all and end-all of luxury watches is a pretty tired trope. But Rolex’s reputation didn’t materialize out of thin air. The company has earned their spot as one of the world’s most trusted brands, and they’ve done so through three distinct avenues.

History: When it comes to Swiss watch brands, Rolex is a young pup. The brand didn’t debut until 1905, decades or, in several cases, over a century after most other Swiss watchmakers. But they really hit the ground running and their innovation led them to the top of the market in a remarkably short period of time. In 1914, they became the first wristwatch to earn a Class A Chronometer certification. In 1926, the Rolex Oyster became the first “waterproof” watch. In 1931, they created the Perpetual Movement — the world’s first fully-winding automatic movement wristwatch movement. In 1945, Rolex released the Datejust, the first watch where the date automatically changed over at midnight. We haven’t even gotten to the invention of Rolex’s most-iconic models yet, but you get the point. The brand changed wristwatches in a big way many, many times, and their reputation grew because of it.

Quality: You may believe they’re overrated or overpriced, but Rolex does not make junk and they never have. If you buy a Rolex watch, it’s likely to outlive you (provided you take care of it). And they haven’t slacked on the robustness of their offerings as they’ve moved into more of a luxury space in recent years, either. Rolex has a dedicated lab where they, essentially, beat the snot out of their watches in every way imaginable. A variety of machines perform over 20 different drop tests, water-resistant watches are checked for security at greater depths than it says on the dial, and one machine is able to simulate years of wear in a week to see how the watch holds up. These tests, combined with the COSC chronometer certification, add up to Rolex’s exclusive Superlative Chronometer certification. Backed by a five-year guarantee, it’s the company’s seal that you’re getting a product of the highest quality.

Marketing: As impressive as Rolex’s history and quality are, the one aspect of the brand that is most responsible for its status is its marketing. When looking at the entire history of the brand, one could make the argument that no brand in any industry has been as consistently good at marketing itself as Rolex. Right from the start, when founder Hans Wilsdorf chose the nonsense name “Rolex” for his brand because it looked good on a dial and was easily pronounceable in any language, Rolex has had a knack for convincing the public of its superiority. One bit of genius was the brand displaying the first Oyster watches in store windows submerged in fish bowls to show their waterproofness. Another was the brand associating its watches with greatness through early brand ambassadors. Mercedes Gleitze wore a Rolex when she swam the English Channel in 1927, Sir Malcolm Campbell wore one when he broke the land speed record in 1933, and Sir Edmund Hillary wore a Rolex Explorer when he climbed to the top of Mount Everest in 1953. Except he didn’t. Hillary had a prototype of the Explorer that Rolex provided for the mission, but he actually wore a Smiths watch for his ascent. But because Rolex’s marketing machine was so well-oiled, they were able to capitalize on the feat and associate the Explorer with Everest — an association that persists to this day, while Smiths faded away long ago. Say what you will about Rolex, there is no denying their prowess as a marketing tour de force.

Photo: Rolex Submariner

A Word On Homages

Don’t Get Us Started On Replicas

Since Rolex makes the most popular watches in the world, it stands to reason that other companies would make copies of their watches. And they do. A lot. While we have no data to back this up, we’re pretty confident in saying that Rolex is the most cloned watch brand in the world. Many of these clones are replica watches; fake Rolexes that say Rolex on the dial and try to pass themselves off as the real deal. Just about everyone agrees that replica watches are bad — they’re basically forgeries. But when you come to the subject of homage watches, things get a little trickier.

Homage watches are watches that are meant to look like another watch but that don’t try to pass themselves off as such. For instance, many brands make watches that are almost indistinguishable from a Submariner, but they don’t say “Rolex” or “Submariner” anywhere on them. Homage watches sometimes tweak the formula a little, but they are always created with the intention of invoking a more expensive watch. Many watch enthusiasts have no problem with homage watches, but many others do. And because they’re such a lightning rod for controversy within the watch community, we won’t be recommending any homage watches in this guide.

The Rolex

Rolex Explorer

It may not have actually been worn on Everest by Hillary, but the Explorer is still an icon. Recently reduced back to its original 36mm case size, the Explorer maintains its reputation as the ultimate everyday watch. Its simple and symmetrical good looks can be dressed up or down, it’s robust enough to handle any adventure you come across, and its design is timeless. And while it’s one of the most affordable models Rolex makes, it’s still an expensive watch. But obviously, we have a solution for that.

Case Size: 36mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $6,450+

The Alternatives

Vaer C3 Tradition Black USA Quartz

A part of L.A.-based microbrand Vaer’s C3 collection, the Tradition field watch definitely has the looks to match its name. While not an homage, the watch’s triangle at 12 and 3-6-9 layout on a black dial certainly recall the most iconic iteration of the Explorer, the ref. 1016. As do its conservative 36mm case size, 100m water resistance, fauxtina lume, and three-link Oyster-style bracelet. But unlike a 1016 Explorer, you’re also getting a nearly-scratchproof sapphire crystal, as well as an American-made movement and American assembly, making this one of the most red, white, and blue watches on the market.

Case Size: 36mm
Movement: Quartz
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $259

Halios Universa

In many ways, Vancouver-based Halios is basically the Rolex of microbrands. Their quality is best-in-class, their models sell out immediately and are often resold on the secondhand market for profit, and they have legions of very dedicated fans. And on their latest model, the Rolex comparisons are even more apt. With vaguely Explorer-like styling thanks to its cardinal Arabic indices and no-date movement, the Universa is a highly attractive and versatile sports watch. With its tall box sapphire crystal and Swiss-made hand-wound movement, the Universa at first feels like a vintage-style watch. But then you get to that angular case and brilliantly-finished flat link bracelet with an ingenious push-button quick-adjust clasp, and it becomes thrillingly modern. Putting it all together, we’re not exactly sure how to classify the Universa, but we know we definitely want one.

Case Size: 38mm
Movement: Manual-Wind
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $735

Monta Triumph

St. Louis-based Monta is another brand that draws comparisons to the Crown, and it’s easy to see why. After all, the brand was founded by the same guys who own Everest Bands, makers of the best aftermarket Rolex rubber straps, and all of their watches are Swiss-made and finished to a luxury level. The Triumph is their most inexpensive watch, and it’s pretty much a bargain version of a modern Explorer. Applied cardinal indices, 150m water resistance, and a galvanized matte-finished dial bring the field watch cred, while the rhodium-plated hands, micro-adjust clasp, and blue-glowing BGW9 Super-LumiNova add a touch of class.

Case Size: 38.5mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 150m

Purchase: $1,700

The Rolex

Rolex Submariner

Even if you don’t know anything about watches, you could probably pick a Submariner out of a lineup. Arguably the most recognizable watch in the world — and almost certainly the most imitated — the Sub debuted in 1953 alongside the other first modern divers, the Blancpain Fifty-Fathoms and Zodiac Sea Wolf, and it remains the prototypical diver today. Looking flawless with everything from a wetsuit to a T-shirt and jeans to a tuxedo, the Submariner is the one watch that just about everyone wants in their collection. But with their prices growing almost by the day, it’s not as easy to nab one as it used to be.

Case Size: 41mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 300m

Purchase: $8,100+

The Alternatives

Orient Kamasu

When you’re looking at divers under $300, you’re going to come across a lot of Orients. That’s because the well-established Japanese brand offers a ton of bang for your buck, and they’ve been doing it for decades. The Kamasu is arguably their best diver ever with a sapphire crystal, 200m water resistance, and in-house automatic movement that hacks and hand-winds. But as every Sub fan knows, the appeal of the world’s most famous watch goes well beyond the shore and is partly owed to the fact that it looks great in any situation. Thankfully for the Kamasu, the budget diver’s familiar-yet-original good looks ensure that it’ll be just as versatile.

Case Size: 41.8mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $269

Christopher Ward C60 Trident Pro 600

Pretty much the consensus best diver you can get for around a grand, the latest iteration of Christopher Ward’s most popular model has charted an exciting new course for the London-based brand. The Swiss-made Trident is a true luxury watch masquerading as an affordable diver, as it’s loaded with high-end features. Diamond-polished indices, dual-finished hands, an AR-coated sapphire crystal, 600m water resistance, a highly-detailed “light-catcher” case, and the glossy polished dial are all top-notch, but most impressive of all is the fully-lumed ceramic bezel that’s been re-engineered to sound and feel better than any other bezel on the market (except one).

Case Size: 38mm, 40mm, or 42mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 600m

Purchase: $1,015

Oris Aquis Date

Oris is one of the few remaining heritage Swiss watchmakers that hasn’t been gobbled up by some multinational conglomerate, and with the watches they’ve been churning out lately, we don’t see them in danger of losing their independence anytime soon. The Aquis is the brand’s top-selling model line, and it’s pretty obvious why that is. As a robust casually-styled modern diver, it’s basically the Submariner of the sub-$4,000 price range, and there’s nary a watch collector alive who wouldn’t welcome one into their watchbox. With a ceramic bezel, buckets of lume, 300m water resistance, and luxury-level fit and finish, the differences between this and the Rolex aren’t as great as you’d think.

Case Size: 36.5mm, 41.5mm, or 43.5mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 300m

Purchase: $2,200+

The Rolex

Rolex GMT Master II

In 1954, Rolex created a new segment by inventing the first watch to track two timezones with a fourth hand: the GMT Master. The watch was made at the request of Pan Am Airways, who wanted a watch their pilots could use to track two timezones on then-new long-haul international flights. The current iteration, the GMT Master II, remains the gold standard for travel watches, especially in its original colorway with the blue and red bezel affectionately called the “Pepsi.” New Pepsi bezel versions are impossible to buy new unless you promise your firstborn son to your local authorized dealer, and they’re currently going for double the retail price on the secondhand market. Yeah, good luck with that. Here are some other options.

Case Size: 40mm
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $9,500+

The Alternatives

Lorier Hyperion

New York-based microbrand Lorier has one of the most consistent and quickly-established design languages we’ve ever seen. Despite 2021 only marking the company’s third year of existence, they already have a catalog full of iconic models that are distinctly Lorier. Their latest (and arguably greatest) is the Hyperion, a vintage-style GMT that goes the extra mile to try and recapture the feel of the very first Rolex GMT Master from the 1950s. To do so, Lorier not only features an old-school domed plexiglass crystal (like all of their other watches), but they’ve also included a lumed plexiglass bezel to mimic the radium-lit bakelite bezel on the original Rolex. C’est magnifique.

Case Size: 39mm
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $799

Zodiac Sea Wolf GMT “Crystal” Topper Edition

We certainly don’t have anything against microbrands who fashion their watches after vintage luxury models — after all, there are several on this list. But for our money, it’s always preferable when a watch brand is able to back up their offerings with some real history. That’s what Zodiac is doing here with the latest limited edition of their Sea Wolf GMT. This gorgeous “Crystal Pepsi” GMT is a modern-day reissue of a Zodiac Aerospace GMT from the 1960s. One of the earliest GMT watches, the Aerospace was sporting Pepsi bezels before almost every other watchmaker not named Rolex, and now they’re bringing the look back in a stunning modern luxury watch that won’t break the bank.

Case Size: 40mm
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $1,795

Tudor Black Bay GMT

At nearly $4,000 — and slightly over that on the steel bracelet — the Black Bay GMT is by far the least affordable of the “affordable” watches on this list. But affordability is relative and, compared to what you’re going to pay for a Rolex GMT, the Tudor GMT is practically free. This is, after all, a legitimate luxury watch with a Pepsi bezel, vintage styling, and a “true GMT” in-house movement featuring an independently-adjustable hour hand. And since it happens to be made by Rolex’s sister company, that makes this the closest you’ll realistically get to purchasing a Rolex GMT for under ten grand.

Case Size: 41mm
Movement: Automatic GMT
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $3,725+

The Rolex

Rolex Daytona

The Daytona is one of the strangest Rolex models, as its journey to its current status at the height of the brand’s catalog certainly didn’t happen overnight. Debuting as a racing chronograph in 1963, the Daytona was fairly unpopular for a pretty long time. But the rising tide of interest in vintage models in recent years — especially examples that sport an exotic dial like those that was famously worn by Paul Newman — has lifted all Daytona models. Vintage Daytonas now account for two of the top-three highest-priced watches ever sold at auction, and the modern models are arguably the hottest watch in the world at this moment. In other words, you’re probably not getting one. Here’s what to get instead.

Case Size: 40mm
Movement: Automatic Chronograph
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $13,150+

The Alternatives

Dan Henry 1962

Esteemed watch collector Dan Henry is one of the world’s greatest resources when it comes to knowledge of vintage watches, and thankfully for the rest of us, he’s sharing his expertise through his namesake affordable microbrand. Henry’s 1962 chronograph was fashioned after the racing chronographs of the early ‘60s, including, presumably, the Daytona. With a matte panda dial, black tachymeter bezel, and twisted lugs, the 1962 is just about the most attractive chronograph you can find for under 300 bucks.

Case Size: 39mm
Movement: Quartz Chronograph
Water Resistance: 50m

Purchase: $270

Le Jour Le Mans

In the 1960s, Le Jour was a watchmaker that re-cased models from the likes of Yema and Heuer under their own brand name, but the name went away during the quartz crisis in the 1980s. Now, Le Jour is back and is reissuing modern versions of its classic mid-century models. The resurrected Le Mans chronograph is a gorgeous racing chronograph with loads of retro charm and all the modern amenities you’d expect, like an AR-coated sapphire crystal and 200m water resistance. Plus, that cream-colored panda dial is giving us some serious Paul Newman vibes.

Case Size: 42mm
Movement: Automatic Chronograph
Water Resistance: 200m

Purchase: $1,380

Ball Engineer Hydrocarbon Racer Chronograph

Compared to most of the other “affordable” brands on this list, Ball certainly plays more in the luxury sandbox. But compared to the five-figure Daytona, this sub-$3,000 watch is a steal. Like the Rolex, the watch has a ceramic tachymeter bezel, a tapering center-polished stainless steel bracelet, and a Swiss-made chronometer-certified automatic chronograph movement. But since it’s a Ball and not a Rolex, you’re also getting a patented crown-protection system and tritium gas tube lume that requires no charge.

Case Size: 42mm
Movement: Automatic Chronograph
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $2,880

The Rolex

Rolex Day-Date

All of the other Rolex watches on this list are steel sports watches, and though they were always on the higher end, they weren’t originally luxury watches and could have conceivably been purchased by regular old working stiffs once upon a time. But the Day-Date is different. This was always Rolex’s luxury model, and it’s only ever been offered in precious metal — gold or platinum. It’s nicknamed “The President” because LBJ wore one on the cover of Time magazine, and ever since then it’s been associated with world leaders, wealth, and success (Alec Baldwin’s watch in Glengarry Glen Ross? That’s a Day-Date). And since you’re probably not running a country or a Fortune 500 company, you could probably use a watch that costs less than your car.

Case Size: 36mm or 40mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $33,150+

The Alternatives

Seiko SGF206

Seiko is a pretty wild watch company, as they produce everything from sub-$100 watches to Grand Seikos that cost tens of thousands. This example is certainly from the lower end of Seiko’s offerings, but it’s still a fun (if slightly-homagey) Rolex stand-in. Coming across like a hybrid between a Day-Date and another Rolex icon, the Datejust, this quartz Seiko comes with a fluted bezel, Jubilee-style bracelet, stick hands and indices, a day-date complication, and most noticeably, gold-tone finishing everywhere you look.

Case Size: 36mm
Movement: Quartz
Water Resistance: 30m

Purchase: $252

Hamilton Jazzmaster Day-Date Auto

Part of Hamilton’s dressy Jazzmaster line, the Day-Date Auto offers classic styling, solid specs, and a handy day-date complication. The “day” portion even sits above the 12 marker like on the Rolex, while the date is located at 6, offering up better symmetry compared to its far-pricier friend. The watch houses Hamilton’s H40 movement — based on the ETA 2834-2 — which has an impressive 80-hour power reserve, while the case and bracelet feature a nicely executed mix of brushed and polished finishes.

Case Size: 40mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 50m

Purchase: $845

Tissot Gentleman Powermatic 80 Silicium Solid 18K Gold Bezel

Tissot’s fanciest watch is pretty much a baby Rolex. The Gentleman’s classic styling was pretty clearly inspired by the Crown, and it backs up its looks with some impressive details. The pseudo-in-house movement from Swatch Group partner ETA boasts an 80-hour power reserve and an anti-magnetic silicon hairspring, the finishing is top-notch, and most impressive of all, the bezel is made from solid 18K gold. Not gold-plated. Not gold PVD-coated. Solid. Gold. That’s unheard of at this price point, and it makes the Gentleman an even more impressive stand-in for the Day-Date — even if it is lacking the day complication.

Case Size: 40mm
Movement: Automatic
Water Resistance: 100m

Purchase: $1,495

The 24 Best Affordable Alternatives To Iconic Luxury Watches

As we touched on, Rolex is not the only high-end watch brand worth considering. There are plenty of other brands that make watches that are just as good and just as iconic, like Omega, Patek, and Audemars Piguet. So if you’re wondering where you can score cheaper stand-ins for some of their offerings (in addition to more Rolex alternatives), take a look at our guide to the best affordable alternatives to iconic luxury watches.

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